Brothers to the End

Ron Karpinski 1997

 

Most of the orange groves are gone today.  Not many walnut or avocado trees remain, either; and, where the Diamond Bar Ranch once spread across rolling hills and open pasture land, densely packed housing tracts now smother the earth.

The rural southern California countryside of my youth has long since fallen victim to concrete and smog.  Builders have paved it over with cul-de-sacs, cinder block walls, and swimming pools.  These days, memories are all that remain.

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Fleeting images from the past can be deceptive, however.  Take, for example, that crisp clear morning in the fall of 1957, a group of children waiting for the school bus at the edge of an asphalt country road.  Suddenly, a scuffle broke out, and my eight-year-old brother, Ritchie, accidentally rammed his head against my hand and broke one of my knuckles.

A lot of people might conclude that Ritchie and I didn't get along well, but that's not true.  We weren't always fighting; it only seemed that way.

Rail-thin and constantly in trouble, crew-cut Ritchie had the hardest head of any kid in the neighborhood.  Stubborn to an extreme, he detested instruction of any kind.  A loner, he preferred to approach problems in his own way.

More often than not, he chose to tear an object apart, in order to discover how it worked.  He might have grown up to be a mechanical engineer one day, except that he rarely managed to put any of his projects back together again, resorting to the nearest hammer whenever parts didn't fit correctly.

A curious sort, Ritchie constantly managed to get himself hurt.  Exposed portions of his body seemed always covered in scabs.  In time, each scab fell off, revealing a fresh patch of pink skin and a new start in life.  For every scab that healed, however, a new one formed nearby.

Once, riding on the crossbar of my bicycle, Ritchie peered down at the front wheel and became mesmerized by the glitter coming off the rotating spokes.  Suddenly, he thrust his bare foot in among them, and the two of us went down in a heap.

 Later, at the hospital, while the doctor stitched up his foot, I asked Ritchie why he had done such a stupid thing.  "I wanted to see what would happen," he answered.

Twenty-one months of seniority on this earth had given me a decided edge in size, agility, and cunning.  Sad to admit, but there were times when I took advantage of my younger brother.  A case in point, I once asked him to help me and my friends build a soap box derby cart.  This project, I announced, would bring us closer together.

*          *          *          *          *

Building a soap box derby cart required a certain amount of cash.  Our meager budget came from two sources:  First, we gathered discarded soda bottles and returned them for the deposit money.  That brought in two cents for each regular-sized bottle and a nickel each for the one-liter size.  Second, we mowed lawns door-to-door for a dollar each.

Because we had so little money, we scrounged most of the parts.  As a result, our carts looked nothing at all like the sleek, brightly painted beauties portrayed on packages of Kellogg's Corn Flakes breakfast cereal.  Those belonged to the rich kids.

Still, we were proud of our efforts, having designed and built them ourselves.  The experience had taught us self-reliance, teamwork, and patience.  Unfortunately, our carts were deathtraps.  Had we received any adult supervision at all, the results would have been much safer; and we could have saved ourselves more than a few scrapes and bruises.

Gerry Rambo and Murray Gibbs shared my passion for building carts.  Among the three of us, we knew every vacant lot and construction site in town and scoured them constantly for old baby buggy wheels, ten-penny nails, and scraps of rope and wood.

Once enough parts had been secured, everyone gathered at Gerry's house.  Each boy took on a separate responsibility.  As junior partner, Ritchie had the privilege of searching for empty soda bottles, soliciting lawn mowing jobs, and standing by in case we needed a test driver.

The construction blueprint called for a lot of wood.  Standard two-by-four studs made up the frame and axles, while flat tongue-in-groove slats covered the floor and seat.  Production fell into the following routine.

Phase One:  Build a rail frame and cover it with floor boards.  Then, add a back rest for the seat.  Next, attach a two-by-four for the rear axle and mount the wheels to the axle using ten-penny nails.

Phase Two:  Attach the front axle, driving a single nail through the center of a two-by-four and into the frame, applying a liberal coat of grease so that it might pivot.  Then, mount the front wheels, again using ten-penny nails.

Phase Three:  For steering, nail one end of a short piece of rope to the front axle near the right wheel.  Nail the other end near the left wheel.  To steer, the driver holds the rope near the middle, hands about a foot apart, pulling back with the right hand to turn right or with the left hand to turn left.

Phase Four (optional):  To install a brake, nail a long stick to the left side of the frame, several inches in front of the left rear wheel.  When the driver pushes the top portion of the stick forward, the bottom portion rotates to the rear and presses against the wheel, slowing the cart.

Such was the technical state of the art in the summer of 1957, the theory being that simple designs yield fewer problems.  The firm of Rambo, Gibbs, and Karpinski specialized in basic, no-frills speed machines.

*          *          *          *          *

Time trials were conducted on Saturday mornings, high in the hills between Whittier and Hacienda Heights.  Over and over again, we dragged our cart up Turnbull Canyon Road and took turns coming down.  A run qualified for the record books, if the driver made it all the way down to the sharp left turn at Las Lomitas Drive -- with at least three wheels still attached.

For a number of reasons, that rarely occurred.  Most often, the driver built up too much speed and had to abort in an ivy patch about two-thirds of the way down.  Other times, owing to shoddy labor and materials, the three-wheel rule could not be met.

At the end of the day, we fished any usable parts out of the ivy and walked home.  On the way down the hill, each driver reviewed his runs for that day and compared notes.  From lessons learned, we began work on a new design for the following week.

All those bumpy landings in the ivy got me to thinking.  Seat belts might be a good safety feature to add to one of our carts.  After all, some of the more expensive new cars coming out of Detroit at that time offered seat belts as an option.

Finding an extra leather belt around the house would be no problem at all.  For a while, Mom had made leather handbags, wallets, and belts as a hobby.  Over twenty custom-made belts hung in Dad's clothes-closet, alone.

Since Ritchie had the lightest fingers in the group, the rest of us convinced him to steal one of Dad's belts out of the closet and bring it to us.  As an added incentive, we suggested that he snatch the one Dad used most often on him.

To convert Dad's favorite whipping belt into a car seat belt, we had to cut it in half.  That meant that it would be impossible to return it to the clothes-closet later.  In any event, Dad probably would not miss the belt . . . until Ritchie got into trouble again.

Now, the time had arrived for Ritchie to start earning his keep as a member of the team.  A job had surfaced that only he could perform: test driver for the new prototype seat belt cart.

As a gesture of good will, Gerry handed Ritchie a hammer and let him fasten the two seat belt ends in place.  For a long moment, Ritchie stared down at the cart and the two straps of leather.  He seemed to sense the importance of the moment.

With a flurry of quick blows, Ritchie scattered five nails on each side, more than enough to secure his scrawny physique.  All stood back and admired the finished cart.

*          *          *          *          *

For such a special test run, a new, more demanding course would be required: the top of Newton Street.  Newton Street ran more than a mile, a straight, gradual climb up the hillside.  It ended at a stop sign, at the intersection of Las Lomitas Drive.

From the stop sign, driving straight ahead and crossing Las Lomitas Drive, one encountered a steep, narrow driveway.  The driveway, at a forty-five-degree angle, ran fifty yards straight up the hill, to a house sitting on a wide plateau.

That driveway offered a perfect test bed for seat belts.  The short, steep drop would provide good speed; bottoming out at the cross road would produce excellent shock; and, no matter which way one turned, the lateral load would stress the seat belts to the limit.

The owners of the house were not at home, so we pulled the test cart up the drive and set it in place, securing the rear wheels with a small chalk block.  Then we strapped Ritchie in place.  Peering down the hill, Ritchie looked worried, commenting that, from his vantage point, the driveway looked a lot like an Alpine ski-jump.

He mumbled something about wanting a helmet.  Murray told him not to worry.  His head was hard enough.

*          *          *          *          *

The new test course offered a wide range of options, best among them steering straight as an arrow.  That would launch Ritchie down the hill, across Las Lomitas Drive, and onto Newton Street, where he had a mile to run out of speed . . . or wheels.

High speed ruled out any sharp turns; but, if Ritchie veered approximately forty-five degrees to the right as he reached the bottom of the driveway, that would be okay, too.  There, he would run off the road and up a soft mound of dirt, coming to a safe stop.

Veering left, however, would aim Ritchie toward a steep embankment that dropped fifteen feet onto a terraced orange grove below.  That option ended in sudden death, whether he landed in a tree or on the hard earth below.  We urged Ritchie not to veer left.

*          *          *          *          *

A lengthy delay ensued while Ritchie gathered his courage.  Out of respect, the rest of us waited in silence.  Then my clumsy foot brushed against the chock block holding the rear wheels in place.  Suddenly, and without further ado, Ritchie's test ride commenced.

The cart looked awfully fast, too fast, in fact.  In what seemed like only a second or two, Ritchie approached the bottom of the driveway.  Hearing our screams, or perhaps reading our minds, he applied the brake.

When Ritchie pressed on the brake, two things happened.  First, the cart veered to the left.  Second, the brake handle broke off in his hand.  Then he hit a bump and went airborne.

Flying low to the ground, the cart, with Ritchie strapped firmly within, bucked and bounced across the road toward the embankment and the orange trees below.  I winced and turned away.  The scene to follow would be too gruesome to watch.

Then, what the heck, I turned around and watched anyway.  Some good might come from this, after all, perhaps a small piece of data that, from a design point of view, might help in future race cart research.  Ritchie's sacrifice, I swore, would not be in vain.

The last I saw of my brother, he was tumbling end-over-end down the embankment.  The cart, still strapped firmly to his back, tumbled with him.  In his left hand, he waved the broken brake stick, while his right hand clutched a short piece of frayed rope.  A string of expletives trailed in his wake, words no eight-year-old should have known yet.

Most important, though, the seat belt held fast.  Ah, sweet success!  There is no feeling like it in the world.

Well, it's almost dinner time.  Guess I'd better mosey on home.  So long, Ritchie.

 

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